Written by Kayleigh Miller
Published: October 7, 2014 at 10:01 PM [UTC]
A few weeks ago, I published an article just looking at the basic effects of beta-blockers on the nervous system, and some of the side effects of regular usage. One of the comments was interesting, "Implying that taking Drugs is great??????? Shocking ending to the article." It made me think, "Performers used to drink before performances and auditions- yet taking beta-blockers is still heavily stigmatized?" Here's some of my thoughts on the issue, and how my perspective has changed over the years.
Modern day classical music has moved to a place of elite virtuosity and a an emphasis on technical perfection and complete 100% accuracy. Anyone who is in the current orchestral auditioning circuit knows this to be true, and often musical intent and sound quality are ranked lower by committees to pure execution of technical passages. (Is this true for every orchestra and festival? Not necessarily, but it is a prominent priority). This is also true in competitions, and sometimes even collegiate auditions. There's a very high emphasis on playing with perfect pitch, rhythm, accuracy, etc., which is absolutely important, but can sometimes go to the wayside under pressure (AKA. sympathetic response). Anyone who has performed or auditioned (without the use of beta-blockers) knows that things get shaky, breathing can be tricky, and accuracy can be compromised. When committees and conductors are looking for perfection under pressure, performers are left wondering what to do when their bodies betray them.
Some people are lucky to not feel strong nerves under pressure, and other people have a debilitating response. Like all things, the human body is highly variable, and individual response to stress is highly dependent on the person. When a performer spends months preparing for a competition or audition, in addition to spending money on flights and hotels, the stakes get even higher. When a diminishing job pool couples with more qualified musicians, we have a serious problem of too much supply and decreasing (often poor orchestra management too!) demand. The pressure on auditioning classical musicians these days is incredible, and I don't think our art form has ever seen anything like it. Committees have become more and more picky, looking for perfect performance under pressure that often results in no-hires and perpetual vacancies, and many musicians stay on perpetual sub lists because they are deemed worthy to play with the orchestra regularly, but not worthy enough to be given a contract. I find the whole system to be distressing, and I completely understand why people use beta-blockers, to give themselves a better chance at employment.
Classical music is not always the most forgiving art form. Many students go to expensive private music schools for either undergrad or grad school, take out loans, and then reach a point where they need to take out another loan for an instrument. If one chooses to take auditions (large ensemble, chamber music, or solo competitions), each audition will cost anywhere from $500-$1000 domestic, and a few thousand if international. Let's assume that many students have $50,000 in debt, and are somewhat unemployed after graduate studies. Students (or post-grads) might work a day job (administrative, educational, or retail) to start to pay back loans, and then still try to take auditions in between. The financial pressure alone is intense, and when it combines with a high volume of auditioners and a higher expectation of perfection, there's a volatile and very intense environment. If you put in a lot of time and money to an audition of 7 minutes duration, and you slightly speed something up or play a little sharp from sympathetic response, that's rarely forgiven by a panel. It's the unfortunate reality of our world.
I used to be a person who judged others for using beta-blockers. I thought that real musicians could control their nerves and keep calm under pressure if they prepared well (not a fair perspective at all!). I then saw how hard many of my colleagues were working, and how stressed they were, and I started to understand their situation. I did not use beta-blockers for auditioning and performing throughout my studies, and I do believe that school is a crucial incubator for learning performance skills (in a relatively low risk environment). I also realize that some people have debilitating performance anxiety, either on a physical response level or a mental level, and I will never know what that's like. I'd love for everyone to eat bananas and meditate and breathe their stress response away, but I honestly know that everyone is different and that every body responds differently to stress. When we're looking at audition stress and performance under pressure, we're not just looking at isolated anxiety, but often a whole host of issues: lack of job, huge financial pressures, need for stability for spouse/children/ etc. If I judge someone who needs beta-blockers in auditions, I'm perpetuating this idea that people must have something wrong with them if they can't perform perfectly under pressure, and that's not fair to the true host of stresses of our career.
The solution? Let’s look at the whole picture of auditioning in general, and be respectful or those who choose (and abstain) from beta-blockers. I’d also love to see orchestra auditions change entirely. I don't necessarily think that playing 7 minutes of orchestral excerpts is a good indicator of how one plays in a section (especially for strings), and I think hearing solo repertoire is often more telling than standard excerpts. As classical music loses funding and audience, maybe it's time to rethink our harsh perfection oriented standards, and instead ask 'what makes a thoughtful musician?' This standard is not only for auditioners, but also for many symphonic musicians who play under intense conductors in high pressure ensembles. I'd love for a shot at an even audition playing field in which no one uses beta-blockers and there's a mindset of forgiveness for any initial shakiness. Until then, it might be time to check that harsh judgment of beta-blocker users at the door and look at the big picture issues.
It makes no sense to compare beta blockers to performance enhancing drugs used by athletes or to heroin. And, beta blockers aren't (and never will be) part of the "monstrous trade world wide"--they aren't addictive or sexy enough to do well in that market.
If you argue that beta-blockers are unethical because they reduce undesirable symptoms, then so are anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, antacids…
And there are many who do this - I know people who take Sudafed-containing cold medications or pain-relievers just to get through each day. Even if this is usual, its surely not healthy for the spirit.
Still, I realize that some players simply can't deal with nerves drug free as I did. If so, remember that beta-blockers do require a prescription -- at least in the USA -- and for very good reasons. If you have a medical condition that these drugs could aggravate -- or adverse interactions with other meds you're already taking -- that could spell big trouble. See your doc first.
Although beta-blockers may not be part of the "monstrous trade world wide," the pharmaceutical industry nevertheless has a vested interest in pushing these products -- even when they may not be medically necessary. Keep in mind, too, that physicians can prescribe medications for uses other than those approved by the FDA -- the USA's Food and Drug Administration. Also, while beta-blockers may not be addictive in the same way cocaine is, they can lead to physical dependence over time.
I did a Net search on this subject and came across the following article -- check it out:
Analogies are hard, but cosmetic surgery comes to mind. If liposuction is the difference between an acting career and no acting career, can we really expect people always to choose the latter? Whose body is it anyway?
The point is well taken, though, when you have competitions. Even though beta blockers don't seem as hazardous as anabolic steroids, to the extent that the emerging stars are role models for our kids, does it make sense to test the competitors?
Such drugs should NOT be allowed for auditions, and I think the AFM should make mandatory that symphony orchestras have musicians tested 2 hours before an audition... and if found,
that person should not be allowed to audition at all, auto disqualified.
I in fact run a pro orchestra, and I do not want
musicians in my orchestra who cannot control their nerves
I also believe, anytime one interferes with the body's and mind's own natural processes, one will pay a hire price later...
There should VERY much be a stigma related to using these drugs, just as there is a stigma in athletes blood doping and using steroids to enhance their performances.
Gregory Lawrence - violinist and CCO director
One simply cannot ask musicians who need these drugs daily for heart, circulation, migraine and other issues not to take them because you don't want the drugs involved in a performance. In addition, medical dosages can be 20-40 times the dosage a musician typically takes for performance anxiety, which makes the stage-fright use seem inconsequential.
In the case of the conductor above, I'm reasonably sure some members of his orchestra are prescribed these drugs for essential medical reasons. If you would fire them based on these medical needs, that action could become a serious legal issue of discrimination that could easily result in an expensive lawsuit.
It's pretty safe to say that during any performance, particularly one that includes musicians over 50 or so, there will be players using beta-blockers daily -- just as many must take cholesterol, diabetes, or other medications. --Blair Tindall
They do nothing to calm a racing mind, they do nothing to abolish fears of messing up or suffering a wardrobe malfunction, and they do nothing to compensate for poor or incomplete preparation. They do calm shaking hands and a racing heart, manifestations of anxiety in some people, but do not quell the anxiety itself.
The pharmaceutical industry, everyone's favorite straw man, has no stake in this, as most B-blockers are generic and quite cheap: for me, $4/month, with or without insurance. When prescribed by a doctor they are no more illegal than other blood pressure drugs, allergy medicines, or antibiotics. There is no equivalence to a pro athlete bulked up on steroids or a person trying to forget their crappy life with painkillers or street narcotics.
Excellent post, and some excellent comments as well.
The extreme stigmatization of those who need them to function normally reminds me of the same attacks against the clinically depressed who benefit from anti-depressants, or student athletes who have type 1 diabetes and require insulin. It's a good thing that medical science isn't so ignorant!
Well, it appears I have ruffled some feathers in my opinion that drugs not be used to enhance one's performance.
Not my intention at
all to make anyone feel defensive...
Hey, I used to be one of the MOST nervous musicians ever.
I had the best down bow (unintentional) down bow spicatto of anyone in the business (LOLOL)... I almost hung up
my violin many times due to my nerves... I have had many colleagues tell me that I should use Beta Blockers, or this or that, etc.
It's a purely personal choice for me to not avail myself
of anything to make me, Greg, more calm. Any and all of you who want to take something to help you 'play your best', you are CORRECT that it's 100% your right to do so...
And ... please, let me qualify, and say that I would prefer anyone who might audition for CCO, feel that they don't need to take anythin; that I from much experience and pain, understand nerves, and can hear excellence and commitment to our craft despite a less than perfect audition, or even a shaky bow. If one is not at all nervous, it means one doesn't care :)
I do feel I have the right to voice my opinion without being made a villain by my colleagues.
Best to all of you!!! Greg
"The pharmaceutical industry, everyone's favorite straw man, has no stake in this, as most B-blockers are generic and quite cheap …."
First, a review of the definition of "straw man" is in order here. Look it up. I don't think the pharmaceutical industry fits the definition.
Second, the pharmaceutical industry does, indeed, have a stake in this. The collusion between some physicians and some pharmaceutical sales reps, at times involving commissions and kickbacks, is well known and well documented on the Net.
I have become somewhat of an insider on this. A fair percentage of my customers over the last 18 years have been pharmaceutical sales reps whose CV's I have reviewed. Often, among their significant accomplishments, they list impressive sales quotas of specifically named prescription meds. I've long known that these people are under the gun from their higher-ups to sell, sell, sell.
I did a Net search this evening on the subject of overprescribing drugs. Here is one result I came up with -- many others also corroborate what I've observed firsthand:
"If one is not at all nervous, it means one doesn't care."
Yes. This reminds me of what I heard from one of several CSO section leaders I worked with during my 2 years in the CSO's training school. He told us during one of our weekly section rehearsals:
"When someone auditions for the Chicago Symphony, THEY'RE NERVOUS. That's because this audition is important to them. If they get the job, this is where they'll be playing -- maybe for the rest of their career. If they don't get the job, they may have to settle for Indianapolis -- maybe for the rest of their career."
You also wrote:
"I do feel I have the right to voice my opinion without being made a villain by my colleagues."
Agreed. Over the years, I've many times been one who actually points out and names the elephant in the room -- and consequently ends up being, you guessed it, "the bad guy."
Yeah -- that's life. But life goes on. What really grinds my gears in threads and blogs dealing with beta-blockers is the apparent readiness of some nervous, relatively inexperienced players to try these meds as a first resort -- instead of last. I've said: "No -- don't do it -- unless they're medically necessary."
As I've related before, I know what it's like to feel the nerves. Who doesn't? But I also learned very early to out-bully the nerves -- not by "beat[ing] drums and do[ing] a hundred press ups before performing" -- see 188.8.131.52 right above me -- but by knowing the material very well and performing often. I can't speak for the next player. But for me, this tried and true plan of action worked.
I don't think anyone here has suggested denying our bodies what they actually need -- and I emphasize the word actually. If I'm tired, does my body "need" caffeine to stay awake? Or does it need sleep and rest to recharge? I say the latter. When body and mind are tired, why put them to cross-purposes? People often find it much easier to chase the symptoms rather than try to solve the actual problem that's causing the symptoms. Consequently, the "cure" is often worse than the "disease."
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